Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to Dawson County High School Monday afternoon for a round-table discussion about mental health services.
The discussion centered on how Dawson County Schools has benefited from the Apex grant program, which Kemp hopes to expand in 2019.
The Apex program began as a pilot program in 2015 with the goal of building infrastructure and increasing access to mental health services for school-aged youth throughout the state by providing counselors inside local schools.
It is supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and is in place in approximately 400 schools in Georgia, mainly high schools.
Kemp said he wants to allocate $8.4 million to double the reach of the Apex program. This week he is touring systems that are recipients of the grant to see how it’s utilized and how it services students.
“When we were putting together our school safety plan … we learned that mental health is a big part of it,” Kemp said. “The more we learn about the Apex program it’s like ‘why do we need to reinvent the wheel?’ Sometimes, we have big ideas but we don’t ask the people implementing them. That’s why we are here today.”
Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the DBHDD, said the original intent of Apex was not just about direct therapeutic intervention, but about building partnerships between the community mental health provider and schools.
Dawson County Schools has a licensed counselor from Avita Community Partners serving students inside Dawson County High School and the junior high school.
Dr. Janice Darnell, director of student support for Dawson County Schools, said that having the additional mental health counseling available to students has already garnered substantial positive results in discipline data alone.
“A lot of students that have issues that they need to be addressed at the mental health level – sometimes there are barriers in place that prevent them from being able to have those services – and so being able to have someone here (on) our campus has really made a huge impact on being able to make sure that if they were already receiving services there was no lapse and if a child needed additional or new services we have that available to them,” Darnell said.
Dawson County Schools has especially taken student mental health seriously as it is centered in a region with a higher proportion of student suicides in recent years.
Between Dawson and Lumpkin counties, there have been 10 student suicides in the past five years, according to Superintendent Damon Gibbs.
“We have communities in crisis, a mental health crisis in my opinion,” Gibbs said. “We have some mental health dilemmas in our community and the work that Dr. Darnell’s done and the partnership with Avita and work that they’ve done and our counselors and our teachers and the work that we’ve done, I think, is helping that issue, but additional funding would allow those services to be expanded.”
In addition to high school and junior high levels, many mental health issues are arising lower grades.
“(In fifth-graders) we see a lot of symptoms of anxiety, symptoms of depression, and even younger than that,” said Riverview Elementary School counselor, Jeremy Lavender.
Vikki Brannon, director of youth health services for Dawson County Schools, also agreed that symptoms of anxiety, depression and childhood trauma are presenting themselves in physiological ways in the nurses’ offices.
“There are so many physiological symptoms coming from kids that are getting out of class due to headaches and stomach aches … and usually it’s not from a medical need that they have. It’s usually stems from anxiety or depression or crises at home,” Brannon said.
Even students in kindergarten are exhibiting symptoms that they are struggling with their mental health, Brannon said.
Officials told Kemp that they would like to be able to expand their use of the Apex grant into the middle school and elementary schools to work on prevention measures.
“Focusing on the high schools is great, but I think we really need to get to the prevention end of it which is starting in the elementary schools,” said Avita CEO Cindy Levi.
Avita currently serves 13 counties in northeast Georgia and has counselors serving 31 schools in the region, but Levi hopes to be able to continue to expand their reach.
“Also looking ahead to expand beyond the counseling, we’d like to be able to offer telemedicine as well,” said Levi. “When you look at the barriers for students getting the services that they need, if a parent has to take off half a day of work to go pick them up and drive them and all that sort of thing that could be a barrier ... if we can provide those services while they’re in the school, then that’s eliminating one of the barriers.”